Spring break brings opportunities for outdoors-loving road-trippers to cross a few national parks off their list. As the weather warms, wildlife reappears and temperatures are perfect for long hikes and backpacking treks.
The USA’s national parks showcase the very best of the country’s wide-ranging beauty, and hiking is one of the best ways to take it all in at your own pace. Whether you’re scrambling up rock formations in of Moab or descending into the depths of the Grand Canyon, don’t pass up the opportunity to linger longer and meander through the great expanses of these majestic parks this spring.
Here’s a shortlist of our favorite national parks (and one state park we couldn’t resist including), all of which beckon this spring break.
1. Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, Utah
Best for mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, backpacking, boating, car camping
March weather: 60° F (high) / 34° F (low)
Skip the crowds at Zion and head north to experience what puts Moab on every adventurer’s map: close proximity to the striking red rocks at both Arches and Canyonlands. Whether you’re looking to tear up the trails on a mountain-biking tour; hike through vast, rust-colored mesas and tablelands; or squeeze through slot canyons, this slice of eastern Utah is not for the faint of heart.
Both Arches and Canyonlands have well-positioned roadside campgrounds within their boundaries – yet intrepid tourists who trek off the beaten path at Canyonlands will be rewarded with one of the most extensive backcountry camping programs in the entire National Parks System. Permits for biking, backpacking or four-wheel adventuring along the famous White Rim Rd are a phenomenal way to nab panoramic views of the high desert and Green River. (Be aware that these permits are in high demand, and need to reserved well in advance.)
Not looking to sleep in the dirt? The town of Moab offers everything you could hope for from a mountain town, from name-brand hotels to quirky, family-owned ranch houses to microbreweries serving up juicy burgers and fries.
2. Everglades, Biscayne and Dry Tortugas National Parks, Florida
Best for boat tours, hiking, scuba diving, snorkeling, car camping, wildlife viewing, beach days
March weather: 82° F (high) / 60° F (low)
Within easy driving distance of Miami sprawl, the trifecta of Everglades, Biscayne and Dry Tortugas National Parks makes for an unforgettable spring-break road trip for anyone who loves wildlife spotting and beaches. November through March is the best time to visit Florida, with the yearly dry season bringing cooler temperatures, less rain and fewer mosquitoes than the scorching summer months.
No trip to Florida would be complete without an alligator sighting, and Everglades National Park is the best place to find one. Hop on a guided airboat tour to scan the water for huge reptiles and endangered birds, then enjoy a kid-friendly wildlife show once back on shore. Those looking to backcountry camp can reserve a chickee (a raised platform to pitch a tent above the water) from the park service and listen to the hum of the park’s creatures as they come alive at night. Car camping can also be found at the Long Pine Key and Flamingo campgrounds.
Those looking to get out of town and experience the magic of the Florida Keys will not want to miss Biscayne and Dry Tortugas. Up to 95 percent of Biscayne is underwater, so snorkeling, scuba diving and kayaking around the park’s rainbow coral reefs and dense mangrove clusters are the top activities for outdoor lovers. Dry Tortugas, on the other hand, involves a four-hour drive down the scenic Overseas Highway to Key West. Stop at fruit stands and the sea turtle hospital on the drive south, then hop onto a ferry to reach the park itself, where visitors can explore 19th-century Fort Jefferson. And don’t forget to try a slice of Key lime pie while you’re down there.
3. Pinnacles National Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California
Best for hiking, rock climbing, birding, star gazing, car camping
March weather: 65° F (high) / 35° F (low)
Located just 2.5 hours from San Francisco and 4.5 hours from Los Angeles, Pinnacles National Park is perfect for California nature lovers looking to escape those notorious Yosemite crowds.
Though Pinnacles is a sleeper park that rarely makes it onto national “best-of” lists, it really comes alive in spring, offering some of the best hiking trails in California, rock-climbing routes for every level and opportunities to see the endangered California condor. Hikers looking to hit the trail and break a sweat will not want to miss the wildflower-lined High Peaks to Bear Gulch Loop, which climbs up and into the park’s namesake pinnacle formations before plunging back down into the Bear Gulch Cave. Be sure to look for nesting hawks and falcons at the trail’s apex.
No road trip to Pinnacles would be complete without a two-hour side journey to the giant redwood forests of Big Sur. From the park, cruise through the charming, seaside town of Monterey and check out its world-famous aquarium before heading south along California’s legendary Hwy 1, which hugs the rocky coastline to the town of Big Sur.
Known for its woodsy cabins and bohemian past, Big Sur is the perfect place to escape the drudgery of the big city. (There isn’t even any cell phone service for an hour in every direction.) Check out the McWay Falls Overlook at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park before getting up close and personal with some big trees along the Tan Bark Trail or at Limekiln State Park.
4. Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest National Parks, Arizona
Best for hiking, backpacking, rafting, roadside attractions, car camping
March weather: 63° F (high) / 24° F (low at the rim) / 38° F (low inside the canyon)
Get your kicks on Route 66 – and check two national parks off your list while you’re at it. Located just an hour and a half from Flagstaff, Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park needs no introduction. It’s a park on nearly everyone’s bucket list, and with good reason. It’s massive, full of lodging and amenities and every bit as gorgeous as the photos in your guidebook.
Whether you’re looking to backpack, car camp or stay at one of the park’s many historic lodges, Grand Canyon has options for even the pickiest traveler – and those who visit in early spring will skip the crowds. Hard-core hiking addicts will want to grab a backcountry permit and trek down the Bright Angel Trail to either Phantom Ranch or the Bright Angel Campground for an unforgettable backpacking trip. Car campers traveling will want to reserve a spot at Mather Campground or Trailer Village.
Afterward, journey through bizarre roadside attractions and historic points of interest on what used to be the fabled Route 66 (now I-40) as you make your way to the painted desert of Petrified Forest National Park. Easily explored in one long day, this park is perfect for scenic drives, short hikes through the badlands and learning about the dinosaurs that once called Arizona home.
5. Big Bend, Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks, Texas and New Mexico
Best for backpacking, hiking, car camping, rafting, canoeing, caving
March weather: 80° F (high) / 39° F (low)
Big Bend is one of those classic, island-in-the sky parks that soars above the desert below and takes your breath away. Situated on the border between Texas and Mexico, the park is as diverse as they come, with activities ranging from scenic drives through the Chihuahuan Desert, volcanic hillsides and the Rio Grande; overnight backpacking in the Chisos Mountains; and guided river trips ranging from four hours to four days. It’s also home to a fantastic array of camping options, from amenity-rich Rio Grande Village and Chisos Basin, to backcountry car-camping sites off dirt roads, to secluded mountain tent sites for hearty backpackers.
Just four hours north of Big Bend are two smaller parks nestled in the Guadalupe Mountains. Carlsbad Caverns is an accessible underground wonderland, full of some of the largest and most intricate calcite cave formations on the planet. Visitors have the option to self-guide a tour through the park’s Big Room area – but we recommend spending a few extra dollars on a guided tour through the King’s Palace section of the cave, which gives details on the park’s fascinating history and how the rock formations were created. No car camping is allowed inside the park’s boundaries, but nearby Carlsbad, New Mexico is full of affordable, family-friendly hotels and RV parks.
After a pit stop in Carlsbad, gas up for the one-hour drive to remote Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Visitors coming through the south entrance will want to camp at Pine Springs Campground, near the visitor center. From here, the brave souls in your group can hike to the “top of Texas” on an 8.5-mile trail that climbs 3000 vertical feet to the summit of Guadalupe Peak (8751ft above sea level). Mellower hikers might want to check out Devil’s Hall or McKittrick Canyon. Backcountry campsites are also available for die-hard tent sleepers and can be reserved at the nearby visitor center.